The dystopic Southland Tales may have been the worst-received film in the
history of the Cannes Film Festival. Observers said that it set a
record for walk-outs, and Roger Ebert called it the greatest festival
disaster since the infamous Brown Bunny.
The normally staid and verbose BBC shrugged its shoulders and
declared, with terse simplicity, "It sucks."
Worst of all, the Village Voice gave the film its kiss of death: "Southland
Tales actually is a visionary film about the end of times."
As I watched the film, my first reaction was, "This is what Blade
Runner might have been like if it had been directed by John Waters
instead of Ridley Scott." I thought that was an insult until I found that writer/director Richard Kelly
was going for precisely that aesthetic. His own quote: "A strange hybrid
of the sensibilities of Andy Warhol and Philip K. Dick ... It will
only be a musical in a post-modern sense of the word in that it is a
hybrid of several genres. There will be some dancing and singing, but
it will be incorporated into the story in very logical scenarios as
well as fantasy dream environments."
You may already have guessed
that the film makes little sense. The size of its cast would make
Tolstoy envious, and its storyline sprawls so much that the
synopsis is 8000 words long. You can't really follow the
anfractuous story at all while watching the film, and your eyes will probably
still be glazed over even after reading that summary linked above,
because the byzantine story contained within the film is only the
final three parts of a hexology. The previous three parts are
contained in comic books:
Two Roads Diverge
- The Mechanicals
The story not only sprawls, but it moves freely back and forth
between the possible, the improbable, the deliberately surreal,
and the just plain silly, so you can't find a door into the film since it follows neither the rules of our universe nor its
I was in the same boat as many of the critics in that my attention
kept wandering during the film, but it wasn't so much because I didn't
understand what was going on. I just didn't care. It's a labyrinth and
there is no entry point. If you're befuddled by the plot, don't look
for access into the film through the characters, because you can't
relate to any of them, and I presume you are not supposed to, ala Dr.
Strangelove. And don't look to be sympathetic with the film's point of
view. Although political and social commentary are an important
part of the film's raison de etre, they are shallow and sophomoric.
And that's actually an insult to sophomores everywhere.
I think it's easy enough to describe the film. Here's how to
replicate it. Take four high school students with B averages. You
can't use top students, because they would have a pretty good grasp of
the subtleties and nuances of geopolitics. You can't use poor students
because they probably don't know where Iraq is, or why it is
significant. You need the type of students who surf the internet
enough to have developed a superficial and one-sided view of the world
which they are convinced is the One True Faith. Ask them each to
compose a short story about the future, and forbid them from
discussing the project amongst themselves. Then take every single
detail from all four stories and combine them into one narrative.
Discard nothing, even if it seems to be irrelevant to and completely
outlying from your cobbled storyline. Just try to stuff it all
together somehow. Voila! The script for Southland Tales 2.
order to make that into a film, hire a bunch of people who used to
work on SNL. Not the top-liners, but the second-tier actors like
Charles Rocket and Jan Hooks. Get
other actors of the same type, the type whose idea of comic
performing is to deliver lines so that everyone knows they're joking
around, like Jason Kidd and Johnny Knoxville. Have your four students try to
choose the right cast members for each role, then shuffle the deck
around until you use none of their choices.
There you have it. The Village Voice thinks you're a genius.